Catching Big Air for 60 Years
By Bobby Davis ’82
Historical photos courtesy of Rollins College Archives and Special Collections
“Gramps” Accelerates the Program
Through the years, Rollins relied on its natural gifts to attract skiers. The College did not (and still does not) offer athletic scholarships in the sport and, until the 1970s, team members had to pay to enter tournaments and for boats and equipment. Florida’s lakes provided a perfect place for waterskiing. With Lake Virginia bordering the Rollins campus, skiers had a place to practice their craft and hold tournaments.
As Mike Morgan ’85, winner of more than 30 national titles and Men’s Slalom Champion at the 2009 National Championships, commented during his student days, “It’s time in the water that makes a skier, and getting to the water here is like getting out of bed.” June Worthington Mendell ’61 remembered, “You could wear your bathing suit to class—covered up, of course—then go out on the lake, and then cover up again and go to your next class. It was fun.”
Students first started water skiing at Rollins in 1940, and the College organized a team in 1948. They won the overall title at tournaments at Cypress Gardens in 1949 and 1950, setting a course of dominance that would last to the present day.
Rollins’ first water ski coach, Henry Suydam (1949-65), was an accomplished athlete who had lettered in track, soccer, wrestling, and tennis—despite losing his arm below the elbow in a fireworks accident when he was 16. Suydam placed the Rollins program on firm footing, partly with the help of his son, Skillman Suydam ’56, another early star in the sport. In the same 1950 world tournament won by Pope Jr., Henry won the Senior Men’s crown and Skillman the Junior Boys’ title. Skillman broke Pope’s string of national championships in 1951 (Pope finished second) and led the Rollins men to their first state championship in 1952.
Henry Suydam earned the moniker “Gramps” while at Rollins, his son said, because “he was everyone’s grandfather. He’d invite skiers to stay with us during breaks so they could get some extra practice in.” He also bought the team’s boats.
Another early star was Professor of Psychology Roger Ray ’62, who set a world record in 1961 with a jump of 120 feet. Ray had skied professionally for Cypress Gardens as a teen and traveled throughout the U.S. and Mexico as a show and tournament skier in the junior boys division. Although he gave up pro skiing after entering Rollins, he won twice in jumping and once overall in the four national competitions in which he participated as a student.
While building their history as a competitive powerhouse, Rollins skiers of the Suydam era began another long tradition: exhibition skiing for alumni and special events. Many Rollins skiers over the years joined the fun at Cypress Gardens, where shows featured trick skiing and stunts, including large pyramids of skiers. Skillman Suydam and a group of Rollins skiers toured the country with Bill Barton’s Skicapades. In 1959, Rollins water skiers were filmed on Lake Eola in Orlando for Art Linkletter’s show On the Go. Even today, student skiers put on special exhibitions on behalf of the College.
“Water skiing at Rollins was unique and different and added a mystique to going to college in the South,” Mendell said. “When I went back North in the summertime and applied for ski shows, I had been practicing all year. And the alligators we saw in the Florida lakes made for a great story at home!” In addition to recruiting top skiers at tournaments and exhibitions all over the country, Rollins coaches cherry-picked skiers from the College’s physical education classes. Several of Rollins’ top skiers learned the sport in college, including Mendell, who had never donned skis until her first year and went on to become the women’s team captain. DeDe David Mahler ’77 hadn’t skied competitively before coming to Rollins and didn’t make the team her first year, but went on to become captain. Leza Harrison ’73 had never skied before she was 20, yet she won the Correct Craft Ski Nautique Award, given to the skier with the highest overall score in any division at the National Water Ski Championships, five times. At the 2010 National Championships, she swept gold medals in Women 55+ slalom, trick, jumping, and overall. “I didn’t know anything about water skiing—it was just a PE course,” Harrison said in an article for West Marine magazine. “They asked me if I wanted to ski on the college team pretty quickly, and I thought that they were making fun of me. But I learned so quickly I was able to do as well as anyone else on the team. Learning to ski at Rollins totally changed my life.”
Skiing Jumps into New Era
After some coaching turnover in the late 1960s, 1970 proved to be a banner year for Rollins skiers. The jump ramp was built in 1969 and, prompted by alumna Sally Evinrude Slater ’57, the Evinrude company agreed to provide a free powerboat and ski equipment in exchange for the right to photograph Rollins skiers in promotional campaigns. Later, Correct Craft, MasterCraft, and Sea Ray donated boats to the team.
Rollins also hosted the first Annual Fall Intercollegiate Waterski Tournament that year and won, beating 19 schools. Water skiing legend Liz Allan Shetter Reid ’71, a Winter Park resident, broke her own trick record in that event. Reid was, by her own admission, a ringer at Rollins, a star skier who had grown up in Winter Park. “Water skiing then was mostly trial and error; we got little teaching of technique, but were trying and inventing things as we went along,” she said. “We didn’t wear life jackets, and our slalom skis were wooden, which are much harder to use than modern equipment. We also skied on open water, which most young skiers don’t do anymore. Most skiing lakes today are private lakes with no other boat traffic and protected from wind as much as possible. Skiers in our era had to be able to master the variables.”
Water skiing was established as a varsity sport in 1971, the same year Rollins hired Paul Harris ’45 as coach—a position he would hold until 1986. During his tenure, Rollins finished first or second in the Southeast Regionals all but one year.
Known as a superb and caring administrator, Harris never rode the boat with the skiers as coaches do today. “He dealt with the politics and paperwork and overall organization, and looked to us to help build the team,” said Bobby Reich ’77. “Even though we didn’t have scholarships, the College always supported the ski team. We had a jump ramp, Correct Craft boats, a supply of gas. Paul kept us together and focused. He loved that team. And if anyone’s grades started to slip, he’d talk to you like a big brother.”
Reich, a Winter Park native who started skiing at an early age and twice won the men’s overall at the Regionals during his Rollins career, captained the Rollins team during a period of triumph and transition. “The 1970s was a period of great change in the sport,” Reich said. “We went to all the intercollegiate tournaments around the country and to the 1976 National Championships to get every judge and AWSA administrator we could find to sign a petition to create a National Collegiate Water Ski Association. We succeeded. We went from wooden to composite skis, equipment got better all around, and it was also the time of Title IX, where women gained a bigger role in sports.”
After a dip in performance in 1978-79, a group of 10 first-year students made the team in 1979-80, joining only four returning skiers. They would prove dominating; from 1979 to 1982, Rollins skiers won four Southern Regional Championships in a row, and from 1980 to 1982 they finished second each year at the National Intercollegiate Championship. Lisa Simoneau Tobias ’83, who started skiing at 10, led the pack. She became one of the top six intercollegiate skiers in the country by her senior year and set the women’s intercollegiate jump record of 115 feet. She and her teammates won 19 straight tournaments. Mike Morgan ’85, from Lake Wales, Florida, already an international star, joined the team in 1981-82. He set a trick record and made a collegiate record jump of 153 feet.
Cassie Hillinger-Vandenhouve ’83 began competitive and show skiing as a young girl (she learned how to ski standing on a barstool on top of a saucer for the Mini-Aqua Bats in Wisconsin, the nation’s oldest ski club) and found in Rollins “a school where I could compete at the national level. The threat of gators made you very competent very quickly. Falling was not an option!” Caroline Hogan Shugart ’83 said, “We all learned from each other, and those four years were very important in our career development. I owe a lot to Rollins for my skiing career.” In 1981, World Waterskiing magazine named Morgan and Shugart Skiers of the Year.